She was born a slave, but was so shielded and lived so comfortably, that she wrote “I was born a slave; but I never knew till six years of happy childhood had passed away.” Her mother died when Harriet was only 6, and she was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew. Harriet was sold to a physician when she was 11, and, after loosing her father as well, Harriet became deeply unhappy. The doctor made Harriet miserable with his unwanted advances. The doctor’s wife was vindictive and jealous. To Harriet’s knowledge, the doctor had fathered nearly a dozen children to slave mothers. Harriet would not be one of them.
The doctor refused to let Harriet marry a freed black carpenter, and she soon began a relationship with a white lawyer with whom she would have two children. Meanwhile, the doctor was fed up with Harriet, and she was moved to his brother’s plantation. When Harriet heard of plans for her children to be sent to join her on the plantation, she immediately began making plans to escape. If she was gone, the children would stay with Harriet’s grandmother, and be spared life as plantation slaves.
“Whatever slavery might do to me,” she wrote, “it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.”
So she escaped to friends homes, then eventually to her grandmother’s home. She hid in a small space above a store room. It was seven feet wide, nine feet long, and only three feet high. She could not even stand up in it, but there she stayed for seven years. She was able to hear and see glimpses of her children. The father of her children finally purchased them, as well as Harriet’s brother, with the promise to free them. She and her children eventually made their way to New York, where a sympathetic friend bought Harriet in order to set her free once and for all.
She began writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853. When efforts to publish the book failed, she had it published “for the author” in 1861. The book was published in Britain the following year.
Harriet went on to teach, nurse troops, and run a boarding house. She died on March 7, 1897.
What most impresses me about Harriet Ann Jacobs is her resilience. She remained in hiding for seven years– in a space where she could not even stand up! During that entire time, she never revealed herself to her children. When she finally did gain her freedom, she did not waste it. She served others and shared her story.
She holds four degrees, including a Doctorate in Engineering and a Masters in Business.
She has designed rovers for Mars exploration and robots destined to help study climate change in Antarctica.
She has contributed to seven books and published over two hundred academic papers.
She has been the recipient of numerous awards including the 2001 Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Early Career Award in Robotics and Automation in 2005, the National Society of Black Engineers Janice Lampkin Educator Award in 2009, and the Georgia Tech Residential Life Cornerstone Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Community in 2013.
She is also a wife, a mama, and downright beautiful.
Who you are: Dr. Ayanna Howard
What you do: Robotics Engineer, Professor, Entrepreneur
Where you do it: Georgia Institute of Technology, Zyrobotics
I read that you were inspired to pursue a career in science after watching the TV show The Bionic Woman. What was it about the show/character that clicked with you?Before watching the show, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a young girl, I was always into sci-fi – anything with robots, space, super heroes – if it included any imaginary futuristic technology or world, I was hooked. The Bionic Woman attracted me, in particular, because it engaged me into thinking about my role in society. Here was this amazingly intelligent, beautiful, super hero that, not only highlighted the strengths of a woman, first and foremost, but had the primary purpose of saving the world. And then I knew that what I wanted to do was pursue a career that allowed me to build the Bionic Woman. Before that, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was always good at math and science, but didn’t really know what kind of career I wanted.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have faced on your professional journey? How were you able to move through them?
When I was younger, the biggest challenge was in learning how to not take things personally and push forward, despite any implicit biases expressed by others. Basically, the biggest challenge was dealing with the Imposter Syndrome, especially as, many times, I was the only female or minority present in a given situation. I once heard someone say “Fake it until you make it.” I realized no one feels confident 100% of the time, so you just press on until you do.
You are a role model for kiddos who are interested in robotics and engineering. Who were some of your role models growing up or as you went through university?
I float through role models – basically, I find individuals who are doing what I’d like to do and figure out how they got there and the lessons they have learned through that process. I also like to surround myself with ‘advisors’ – i.e. individuals whom I can seek out when I need advice. In essence, they function informally, at various instances of time, as my mentors, colleagues, confidants.
Your list of awards and publications is staggering (your CV is 17 pages long!!). You have worked on building rovers for Mars, artificial limbs for kids, and robots that can explore the Arctic to help scientists study climate change– what are you most proud of?
I’m usually the most proud on the things I’m working on now. Right now, I’m most proud of releasing the Zumo Learning System, which is an accessible electronic learning system for STEM. It brings together technology licensed from my lab at Georgia Tech, aspects of machine intelligence, K-12 math education, and addressing the needs of children with differing abilities.
What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
What is the best song to sing to in the shower or when you are alone in the car?
Don’t actually have one. When I’m listening to music – it’s usually Zumba music (since I teach a weekly Zumba class and the rule of thumb is – know your music).
What was the best piece of advice you have received? What was the worst?
The best piece of advice has been when someone asks a question that makes me think (causing me to give myself advice or seek advice to answer the question) – Why haven’t you written a book? Have you ever thought about starting your own company? Have you ever thought about an academic career?
The worst piece of advice – I’m actually not sure since I tend to push negativism out of my life.
You have been interviewed and featured by just about everyone, from TIME magazine to PBS. Is there anything you wish they would ask, but they never do?
I wish they would ask: “You’ve done a lot and seem to be quite busy. How do you balance?”
My answer would be: My family – they keep me sane and grounded. They help me to say NO when it’s time that I should.
What is your definition of beauty? Or, when/where do you feel most beautiful?
Definition of beauty – strong inside, exuding confidence outside. Honestly, I feel the most beautiful when I’m on stage speaking to a general audience. Each time – it challenges me to rise above self – becoming stronger inside and more confident outside.
Daniela Delgado is fighting her own battle. She was born with Von Willebrand Disease, a rare bleeding condition that she will have to deal with her whole life. It keeps her from participating in contact sports and climbing to the tippy top of the jungle gym. But it doesn’t keep her from baking beautiful birthday cakes for kiddos who are fighting life threatening diseases, or dealing with any situation that might make them “feel sad or different.” She bakes and delivers the cakes at no charge to the families. She sings Happy Birthday and watches as they blow out the candles. She could be sitting around, feeling sorry for herself and complaining about her condition. But instead she is spreading love, and bringing smiles to kiddos who deserve a few more smiles in their lives.
Madame CJ Walker was the first free born child in her family. She was orphaned by the age of 7, but provided for herself by doing laundry with her sister. She went on to become one of the first female self-made millionaires in America.
Frankie Muse Freeman is a civil rights attorney in St Louis Missouri. She was the first woman to serve on the US Commission on Civil Rights. She won the case that ended segregation in public housing in St Louis. Instead of sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, Frankie walked. Instead of making a scene when she was denied service at coffee shops or restaurants, she promised “Later for you” and got busy changing laws. Mrs. Freeman knew the root of the problem was unjust and unconstitutional laws. So she fought to change them.
Emma Watson’s book club selection for March was All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. I had been hearing fantastic things about Ms hooks and I was super pumped to jump into this book!
In the first discussion thread, Emma posted an interview she recently had with bell. One of my favorite quotes from bell is:
I look at how to bring that whole self out. I’m interested in fashion, too. I’m particularly interested in fashions that are comfortable and beautiful. I have an overall obsession in my life with beauty. I’m always wanting to surround myself with the kind of beauty that uplifts you, that runs counter to some of the stereotypes of feminist women.
I was drawn to this for obvious reasons– I too am drawn to and interested in this idea of beauty and I loved how she kind of called for a challenge to the stereotypes that might come to mind when we imagine a feminist.
After announcing the book, several discussion threads were quickly started.
The most popular by far was Not Feeling It.
I really wanted to love this book, after hearing such great things about the author. But, alas, something just did not click. Turns out, I was not alone. Here are some laments from the Not Feeling It crowd:
Several members thought the book was too “self-helpy” for them. Though it was largely based on personal experience and filled with opinions like a self-help book, the lack of practical advice makes it a tough fit for the self-help shelf.
Many folks, myself included, were put off by some blanket statements that seemed to be presented as well-known facts. For example, when discussing Nicole Simpson, hooks states that Nicole “kept herself and her children in a dangerous, life-threatening environment in part because she was not willing to sacrifice her attachment to a superficially glamorous lifestyle among the rich and famous…” (p. 112, emphasis added). Now, had bell talked to Nicole? Had Nicole expressed this to hooks? We don’t know for sure, but this is just one example of an opinion that seems to be presented as a truth, but is not supported with any “evidence.”
hooks is an advocate of love as a powerful force, but this idea came across to some readers as a bit extreme. More than one book club member expressed discomfort with the idea that any one solution can be applied to all problems.
My biggest struggle with the book came in theconnection that was made a few times between being abused in youth and therefore being unable to love in adulthood.
Not too long ago I stumbled upon something online (a video? an illustration?) that was very touching. It was done by an adult who had been abused as a child. The individual remembers seeing and hearing this idea that all abused children grow up to be abusers. This only galvanized his feelings of shame and depression. He was horrified at this idea that he would have no choice– he would grow up to be an abuser BECAUSE someone had abused him.
It is tragically un-empathetic and unloving to continue to make such claims. Certainly, folks who were abused as children have a tougher task learning what healthy relationships look like, but to say things like “…the parents who came from unloving homes have never learned how to love and cannot create loving home environments…” (page 27) is truly hurtful. It makes me ache for the folks who have been through hell and work everyday to make sure that their children, or children they know, don’t know what abuse feels like.
I also have to take issue with her ideas that spirituality and religion are the key to being loving. On page 74 hooks writes, “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be Christians, or who claim to be religious, were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” As a non-religious person, I feel I am not off the hook when it comes to being an example of love. So let’s re-work this a bit: “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be humans were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” Ahhh. That’s better.
Lessons learned from All About Love
Though the criticism were many, I think that the overall message of the book is an important one. And there were some points that really jumped out at me:
I loved her discussion of “cathexis,” a word I had never seen before. Apparently, it refers to the emotional investment we make in another person which is often mistaken for love. Very intriguing!
I loved her definition of love as an action. Borrowing from M. Scott Peck, hooks defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” and as a combination of care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect. Her words rang true when she wrote: “Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks–with terrible alienation.” (cue mic drop)
“Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love.” I can’t help but think of those terrible pictures floating around the internet of crying kids sharing an over-sized t-shirt with the words “This is our Get Along shirt” scrawled across the front. Or videos posted on social media with the sole purpose of humiliating a child who mis-behaved. What if we did this to adults? Have a co-worker you just can’t seem to get along with? You get to share a shirt for an hour and I will post pictures online! We wouldn’t stand for it. So let’s not do it to our kiddos, mmk? Humiliation is not the answer. We can do better than that.
Discussing TV shows geared towards families, hooks laments that they often favorably represent kids who are overindulgent, disrespectful, or acting out. I could not agree more! Though the book was published a decade and a half ago, this is still the norm. Shows like Lab Rats teach us that dads are self-centered and arrogant, and that children should be ridiculed for their appearance (I swear, if I have to hear about how Chase is ‘too short’ or Leo is ‘too skinny’ one more time…!).
“When we hear another person’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, it is more difficult to project on to them our perceptions of who they are.” Yes! YES! YES!! Please, for the love of all things good and beautiful, listen to people! Learn about who they are and why they understand things the way they do. And don’t be a jerk.
Quoting Richard Foster, hooks writes “Greed has a way of severing the cords of compassion.” Though an often repeated idea– that greed and money are ultimately hurtful– I liked this reminder that compassion is a necessity that can be overlooked if we find ourselves becoming focused on “getting more.”
“The more genuine our romantic loves the more we do not feel called upon to weaken or sever ties with friends in order to strengthen ties with romantic partners.” I wish I had heard this when I started dating!
I have to admit, this one was a bit of a tough read for me. But I remain hopeful that some of bell’s other works will make this one shrink from my memory and help me better see her as the incredible force she is known to be.
All About Love did make me think, which is the whole point, right?
If you are curious, next month’s book has been announced.
In April, Our Shared Shelf will be reading How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.
I recently happened upon this article by Yale grad student Barbara Sostaita. If you were not among the thousands of people who read and shared the article, let me sum up. The picture at the beginning of the post is of a young Latina flipping off the camera– that sets the tone for the entire article. Sostaita writes passionately about her refusal to celebrate “your feminism,” which she (correctly) understands as being overwhelmingly white.
Maybe it was the tone of her writing, or maybe it was the intensity of her passion, but after reading the article I felt deeply ashamed, embarrassed, and left out. I am white. I thought it was a good idea to celebrate the suffragettes. I thought Hillary Clinton was ok to talk about. And Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is on my “to-read” list. I did not recognize a lot of the names that Sostaita brought up. I am not familiar with Toni Morrison’s work; I don’t know who Gloria Anzaldua is; I was unaware that female asylum seekers in a Texas detention centers went on a hunger strike for immediate freedom. I didn’t know who these women were, and that embarrassed me.
I felt deliberately left out of this conversation because of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me. Maybe I was feeling just a small bit of what my sisters around the country and the world feel every. frickin. day. I was feeling sorry for myself because I felt left out. But how many women are left out of conversations not only because they were born with the ‘wrong’ anatomy, but the ‘wrong’ amount of melanin in their skin as well.
But Sostaita didn’t stop there. She goes on to say:
This Women’s History Month, I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that keeps women of color on the margins. This Women’s History Month, I refuse to celebrate a white feminism that alienates, subjugates and oppresses women of color. I don’t want to be hear about the first Latina [insert public office title] or the first Asian [insert professional sports title]. I’m sick of women of color only being mentioned and deemed worthy when we are the “first,” when we fit neatly into a box crafted by white women’s version of history. We have been, are, and will always be “exceptional” and “important.”
Ms Sostaita got me thinking– who else am I missing this Women’s History Month? Who should we really be talking about? I asked around, and it seems the majority of the women we generally think of when we think of important women in history are indeed white. There are obviously a few exceptions, as some amazing African American women are consistently lauded (I’m looking at you Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth).But I was disappointed to see not one Asian, Hispanic, Indian, or Native American woman on my list.
Here are some of the ladies I heard mentioned when I asked, “Who are some of your favorite women from history?”
My mom: for real though, big ups to our mommas!
“If you’re not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space!”
Harriet Tubman: abolitionist, activist, nurse, underground railroad conductor, military hero; buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn.
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
Lucy Stone: suffragette, abolitionist; convened the first national Women’s Rights Convention in 1850.
“I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned.”
Emma Goldman: fiery speaker and advocate for peace, free love, and birth control; she was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919.
“The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but, after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved.”
Anna Julia Cooper: born into slavery, Cooper went on to become an author, speaker, and one of the most prominent African American scholars in US history.
“...not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won–not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong…”
Christine de Pizan: born in Italy in 1364, she is considered a pioneering feminist writer and one of the most notable women writers of medieval times.
“[I]f you seek in every way to minimise my firm beliefs by your anti-feminist attacks, please recall that a small dagger or knife point can pierce a great, bulging sack and that a small fly can attack a great lion and speedily put him to flight.”
Sojourner Truth: a leading civil rights and women’s rights activist, Truth was born into slavery, but escaped with her baby girl and went on to successfully win her son’s freedom in court.
“If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett: daughter of slaves, she became a journalist and led an anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s; she formed the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and is considered a founding member of what would become known as the NAACP.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton:early leader of woman’s rights movement; wrote the Declaration of Sentiments(a call to arms for equality).
“I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.”
“Your mother is a hard act to follow. She will always be the love of your life.”
Margaret Chase Smith:politician, U.S. congresswoman, presidential candidate, author; she cosponsored the Equal Rights Amendment with Congresswoman Winifred Stanley in the mid-1940s and worked on improving the status of women in the military.
“When people keep telling you that you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try it.”
Shirley Chisholm:first African-American congresswoman, and first major-party black candidate to make a bid for US presidency
“Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
Mary Wollstonecraft:English writer, educator, journalist, and women’s rights advocate who argued for equality and educational reforms.
“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
Jane Addams: pioneer for social work, advocate for peace, and social activist; founder of Hull House.
“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
Mary Astell: English philosopher best known for her theories on the education of women and her critiques of John Norris and John Locke.
“If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?
This list is far from complete and our conversation is far from over. Let’s come together to educate and lift up. Who would you add to the list?
Frankie Muse Freeman will be celebrating her 100th birthday this November. She could be sitting at home, resting on the laurels of her innumerable accomplishments. But that’s not how she rolls. Instead, she is speaking out about the progress we have made as a nation in the area of civil rights, and what we can continue to do moving forward.
I read her book, A Song of Faith and Hope. I saw her speak at a local library event. And I was honored to speak with her over the phone. Here are just a few lessons I have learned from Mrs. Freeman.
1. Just do it.
Growing up, Frankie always heard people say they were “fixin'” to do this or that. Her parents didn’t love that. Instead, they encouraged Frankie and her siblings to get on with it– don’t “fix” to do it, just do it! (I think Yoda would have approved)
Frankie carried this simple yet powerful message with her throughout her life. I can’t help but think that many of her accomplishments are largely due to this mantra– this drive to just keep DOing.
At the last event at which she spoke (pictured above), Mrs Freeman was introduced as being the first African American woman to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. When it was her turn to speak, she corrected the mistress of ceremonies: “I was not the first African American woman to serve on the Commission. I was the first woman period. Black, white, yellow, blue, or otherwise,” to which she received thunderous applause.
The list of Mrs. Freeman’s accomplishments is staggering. Not only was she a rock star of a civil rights attorney, winning a landmark victory that ended racial segregation in public housing in St Louis, she went on to serve on the very housing commission she had just defeated in court, to help them implement the changes she demanded. As mentioned above, she was the first woman to serve on the Civil Rights Commission, and went on to become Inspector General for the Community Services Administration (these are positions appointed by the President of the United frickin States, y’all). The number of hats she has worn is staggering– from being the national president of her sorority to serving on just about every board known to man, including (but nowhere limited to): the League of Women Voters, the National Council on Aging, the YWCA, the Girl Scout Council of St Louis, the St Louis Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the World Affairs Council of St Louis, oh, and the African American Jewish Task Force (no, she’s not Jewish, she just thinks its cool to reach out across cultural and religious boundaries). Now, with a resume like this, you might be thinking, “Oh, she’s had a great life.” You might even call it ‘charmed.’ You would be wrong.
Loss has not been a stranger to Mrs. Freeman. She has buried her mother, her father, and her husband. But she has also buried her son– a grief no human should have to endure. And she has battled cancer–twice– and won.
She has also fought one hell of a battle professionally. In her book she recalls one particular instance in Alabama, where she and the Civil Rights Commission were conducting hearings focusing on economic rights in Montgomery. In her words:
One evening, after the Montgomery hearings, I returned to my motel room after dinner. It was a pretty evening in April and I had the curtains open; I could look out– and anyone who wanted to could look in. I was sitting at a table with a member of the Alabama State Advisory Committee, reviewing the day, when boom, something struck the window and broke it. I thought it was a bullet. It apparently was intended for me, but I was not hit.
She was also fired, at least twice, for speaking up and being a “trouble maker.” But you think a little death, cancer, and possibly a bullet is going to stop Frankie?! She could have given up and not one person would have blamed her or said she hadn’t done enough. But nope. She just. Kept. Moving. As she says in her book, you have to keep your hand on the plow.
Even today, Frankie is a do-er. At the aforementioned speaking event, she was joined by youth activist and motivational speaker Koran Bolden. When asked about entities working to keep people divided, Koran spoke powerfully about how and why today’s youth needs our support. Frankie was so moved she jumped in and said, “What you just said touched everybody here, so there is no reason they can’t start tonight.” She went on to encourage everyone in the room to support Mr Bolden’s mission, saying, “Don’t wait until tomorrow for something that can start tonight. It is an individual’s responsibility to bring about change. Let’s begin it and let’s get on with it.” I have a feeling that Mrs Freeman has rarely waited for tomorrow.
Is there anything more beautiful than a woman who doesn’t say she’s “going to” do this or that, but actually goes out there and does it?
2. You are powerful.
Mrs. Freeman grew up in Danville, Virginia, the last capital of the Confederacy. She and her family lived on the 200 block of Ross Street, where all of her neighbors were black. The 100 block of Ross Street was a white neighborhood, and young Frankie and her siblings would walk through that neighborhood on their way into town. Mrs Freeman remembers that white children playing outside would often smile and say “nigger, nigger, nigger” and she and her siblings would smile back and say “cracker, cracker, cracker.” When the Freemans needed their shoes repaired, they would take them to a shop in the basement of Mr Wrigley, a white man. When the shoes were ready, Mr Wrigley’s children would return them to the Freeman family. These were normal occurrences.
Peaceful though it was, little Frankie grew up knowing that people who looked like her were treated differently, and that was not ok. She also grew up knowing that she had the power to change it. Her parents taught her that if you stand for something, there will be times when you have to say, “Enough”– but that doesn’t always mean you make a scene right then and there. She was always encouraged to do something that would be effective. Public transportation was segregated in Danville, so the Freeman family simply walked everywhere they went. If a friend of the family was mistreated in the local department store, the Freeman’s would no longer shop there. Frankie’s parents, Maude and William, were very active in Danville so Frankie grew up seeing her parents making a positive impact their community, and she knew she could too.
3. Make your own path
When the black community in Danville could not get a loan from the white owned banks, Frankie’s relatives started their own bank.
After graduating from law school, Frankie applied to law firms in St Louis. She was told they could use her in the office, perhaps to do research, but they would not hire her to try cases. Following her relatives’ lead, she started her own practice. She met with judges in St Louis and tried the cases no one wanted. The first few times she showed up to the courthouse and told the clerk which case she was there for, she was told to have a seat and her lawyer would be there shortly. But it wouldn’t be long before they learned who Frankie Freeman was. (By the way, Mrs Freeman practiced law until 2009. That’s 62 years!)
4. You do not acquiesce.
Throughout her book, this mantra “Later for you” pops up again and again. I loved seeing it every time because I knew it was a promise, and I knew whatever the situation was, Frankie was going to make it right. Like at a restaurant in Flat River, Missouri. Or a coffee shop in Louisville. Here is how she explains it:
Sometimes when you beat your head against a brick wall, you have to realize that you are damaging your head, not hurting the wall. Therefore, you do the best you can so long as you do not acquiesce and you do not give up. You say, “later for you,” and promise yourself that when you can do something about it, you will.
There were times when Mrs Freeman chose to give in to the law of the time, in lieu of being arrested. She knew she could do more in the courtroom than she could in the jailhouse, so she promised, “later for you” then got to work changing the world. (More on that below).
When I spoke to Mrs Freeman, I asked her what she sees today that makes her think, “Later for you” — what do we still need to work on? Living in St Louis, I was expecting a comment on the police violence that we have been hearing so much about. But she surprised me when she said that every state in America still has segregated schools. “Not by law, of course, but it is true.” She told me that there is still racial segregation, or isolation, in public schools today. And I don’t have to look farther than my own childrens’ school to see that she is right. We live in a suburb of St Louis, and the majority of the students are white. In fact, the few African American students we do have are those who are bussed in from the city. Frankie laments that diversity is not yet as valued as it should be. She is saddened to think that children don’t have the chance to really play and interact with kids who look different from them until they are adults. She encourages working with teachers and parents alike to figure out a solution. She told me that she called for more diversity and spoke about the value of it in 1969, and can say the exact same thing now. As she said in her book, “To move away from racism, I feel we need to get to know one another.” And getting to know each other should start happening at a young age.
5. Speak. Up.
Frankie didn’t always say “Later for you” to herself. As a matter of fact, she spoke right up when she found herself in a situation she knew was unfair, unethical, and unconstitutional. For instance, in February of 1961, Frankie was making her way via bus to Hayti, Missouri to be the keynote speaker at an event held by her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. On the way, the bus stopped at a restaurant in Flat Creek. She got off the bus with the other passengers and made her way to the restrooms. A waitress loudly informed her that “The colored use another entrance.” When Frakie proceeded towards the ladies room anyway, a white customer blocked her path and repeated what the waitress had just said, “Colored can’t come in here. You have to go to the other side.” Frankie froze. The bus driver got involved and defended the restaurant’s policy. Frankie thought about pushing the lady out of the way– but what would that solve? Frankie would have been arrested and her sisters in Hayti would have no speaker for their event. Instead, Frankie headed back to the bus and re-wrote her speech. (This might sound like Frankie gave up, but stay with me).
At the next stop, Frankie called home and asked her husband to contact a friend of theirs, attorney Charles Oldham. She wanted to file a complaint against Greyhound and against the restaurant, and file a complaint she did. Greyhound soon issued an apology and the restaurant agreed to change its policy. Two weeks later, when some folks visited the restaurant to make sure they had carried out their promise, they found that the separate facility for “colored” had been eliminated.
She had a similar incident at a coffee shop in an airport in Louisville. She was denied service, she spoke up, and changes were made. Mrs Freeman was confident enough to stand up because she knew she had the Constitution on her side.
6. Stay humble.
In her book, Frankie tells the story of when she was nominated as president of her Sorority. Now, let me point out that Frankie did not join while she was in college. She had known about Delta Sigma Theta when she was an undergrad at Hampton Institute, but they did not have sororities on campus then. And while studying law at Howard, she had no time to join. So it wasn’t until after she had received her law degree and was living in St Louis that Frankie became involved in the nationally known public service sorority. She worked hard for the sorority, and in 1967 she was on the ballot for national president. Now, the results of the election were to be announced at a banquet on the third day of a national convention. But word got out that Frankie had won, and she was receiving congratulatory phone calls while she was trying to get ready for the banquet. Consequently, she was late. In her own words:
I was late, honestly late; I am never late, but I truly was that time. However, some people thought I was coming in late on purpose–that I knew I was elected and was trying to make an appearance. Jeanne Nobel teased me later that I had “flaunted in,” but I replied that “I don’t flaunt.”
When you have lived the life Frankie Freeman has lived, you don’t have to flaunt.
While I was talking to Mrs Freeman on the phone I confessed that I had been holding onto her phone number for a couple of weeks, but I hadn’t had the courage to call her. I told her I was a bit intimidated because she is such a big deal. She just laughed and said, “Oh, I am not a big deal. I am a 99 year old woman!”
Well, that didn’t convince me. Frankie is most certainly a big deal, and she has every reason to flaunt. But she stays humble, and that is beautiful.
With First Lady Ladybird Johnson
With President Jimmy Carter
With President Bill Clinton
With First Lady Barbara Bush
With President George H W Bush
With First Lady Nancy Reagan
(See, I told you she was a big deal)
7. Do your homework.
Frankie’s mother was a public school teacher, and though she gave up her career to stay home with her children, she never stopped teaching. The Muses were strong believers in the power of education, and told her children that once they got an education, no one could take it away from them. Maude knew her children would go to college, the only question was where. She and William paid for their own children’s education, but Maude went even further and raised scholarship funds so other children could pursue their education as well.
Frankie remembers that her parents– her mother especially–filled their home with books. When I spoke with her, Frankie recalled: “There were books all over the place– and we had to read them all!” But she didn’t mind. She loved reading anything she could get her hands on.
When I asked her what the best piece of advice she had received was, she paused for a long moment and really thought about it. She finally answered, “My teacher told me to do my homework. That was the best advice.” And I can see that throughout her life, Frankie did just that. She worked hard, both in school and in the courtroom, and brought about real change in her community and her nation. That’s pretty damn beautiful if you ask me.
8. Take care of yourself.
Looking at Frankie’s life, it is easy to get the impression that she was all-business. How else could she have accomplished everything that she did? That is why I love this story of her just throwing caution to the wind and doing something unexpected: After being fired (the first time), Frankie went out and treated herself to something she had always wanted– a full length mink coat (don’t tell PETA). She put it on her husband’s credit card, but told him not to worry, she would pay it off as soon as she got back to work. Which, was like, the next day.
When I talked to her on the phone, I brought up some things she had mentioned in her book that had brought her joy. One of these things was cooking. I could hear her smile through the phone when she explained that, especially in the beginning, she was working so hard to get her career going, that she had to take time to relax, and cooking helped her do that. She told me her favorite thing to cook is her famous corn pudding, or her veggie salad with marinated green peppers, celery, tomatoes, and whatever other vegetables she can find. (My mouth is watering).
There is no arguing that Mrs Freeman worked hard throughout her life, but she knew how to treat herself as well. And that is beautiful.
At the end of my conversation with Mrs Freeman, I asked her what her definition of beauty is:
I was honored and inspired to have to opportunity to not only see this beautiful woman in person, but speak with her personally. She is truly an inspiration, and an example of what one individual can accomplish if they would just get to it.
Unless otherwise noted, all information and images were taken from Mrs Freeman’s book, her speaking engagement at the St Louis County Library Headquarters, or from my personal interview with her.
As you probably know, today is President’s Day. As you may or may not know, today is also Susan B Anthony’s birthday. Here are a few things I learned from scratching the surface of her life story…
1. To be a rebel, you gotta find a cause. Or six.
Throughout her life, Anthony fought for equality above all else.
Abolitionist: Members of Anthony’s family were very involved in the anti-slavery movement, and in 1856 Susan became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She hung posters and gave speeches calling for an end to slavery. In 1863 Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a Women’s National League to support the 13th Amendment. In her newspaper, The Revolution, she argued against lynchings and racial prejudice.
Educational Reform: In 1846 Anthony was a teacher and became active in calling for equality in the classroom. She called for better pay for women teachers and for equal education opportunities for all students, regardless of race, gender, or their family’s former state of servitude. In the 1890s, she raised $50,000 to ensure that the University of Rochester would admit female students.
Labor Activist: Anthony advocated for an eight-hour work day in her newspaper, and she encouraged women who were excluded from male dominated trade unions to form their own unions. And of course, she called for equal pay for equal work.
Temperance Worker: Anthony was raised a Quaker, and as such, she believed drinking alcohol was sinful. She was an active member of the Daughters of Temperance, a group of women who drew attention to the effects of drunkenness on families and pushed for stronger liquor laws. When she was denied the right to speak at a convention of the Sons of Temperance, she held a meeting of her own. In 1853 Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton endeavored to petition the State Legislature to pass a law limiting the sale of liquor. The petition was rejected because most of the 28,000 signatures on it were from women. Anthony and Stanton realized that women needed the vote so that politicians would listen to them, and they resigned from the Temperance Society to focus on getting women the right to vote.
Suffragist: Anthony and Stanton had believed that the Republicans would reward women for their work in the abolition movement by giving them the right to vote. When that didn’t happen, they were disappointed. Then they got to work. They founded the American Equal Rights Association and began publishing their newspaper, The Revolution. Anthony toured the west, giving speeches and raising awareness. She gathered petitions with thousands of signatures and spoke in front of every Congress from 1869 to 1906 to ask for passage of a suffrage amendment. She was a leader in the suffrage movement until she retired as president of the National American Women Suffrage Association in 1900 (she was 80 years old). However, she was still an active and respected voice in the movement. She presided over the International Council of Women in Berlin in 1904 and became honorary president of Carrie Chapman Catt’s International Women Suffrage Alliance. Women finally got the vote when Congress passed the Ninteenth Amendment (also known as the Susan B Anthony Amendment) in 1920, fourteen years after Anthony’s death.
2. Haters gonna hate.
For just about every cause she championed, somebody hated on her:
She faced mobs, threats, and was even hung in effigy for her efforts to end slavery.
Ironically, Anthony’s work for women in labor got her labeled as an “enemy of labor.” She was president of the Workingwomen’s Central Association, which drew up reports on working conditions and provided educational opportunities for working women. She supported the Sewing Machine Operators Union and the newly formed women’s typesetters union. She tried to establish trade schools for women printers. When printers went on strike in New York, saw it as an opportunity for employers to see that women could do the job just as well as men could and therefore deserved equal pay for their work. So, she encouraged employers to hire women to take the place of the strikers, and was accused of strike-breaking and being an enemy of labor.
Injustice was served. In 1872 Anthony was arrested for voting (she also refused to pay her streetcar fare on the way to the police station). She also refused to pay her bail and applied for habeas corpus (in which an individual reports an unlawful detention or imprisonment), but her lawyer paid her bail and kept the case from going to the Supreme Court. She was indicted near her home, so the Rochester District Attorney asked for a change of venue, fearing that a jury in Albany might be prejudiced in her favor. The judge in the new venue, Canandaigua, made sure there was no issue with jury prejudice when he instructed them to find her guilty without discussion– the jury did not even get to discuss the verdict! The judge fined her and ordered her to pay courtroom fees. When she refused to pay, he chose not to imprison her, thereby denying her chance to appeal.
3. Stay focused.
While working in the Temperance Movement, Anthony made a tough decision. In additon to speaking and gathering petitions, Anthony and Stanton had drawn attention to the case of Abby McFarland. Abby’s drunken and abusive husband, Daniel, had shot and killed the man Abby divorced Daniel to marry. Daniel was aquitted on a plea of temporary insanity and given custody of their son. But even though temperance was a cause that was dear to Anthony’s heart, she decided to stay focused and not support Prohibition because it distracted from the bigger issue– women getting the vote.
4. Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one.
In 1846, when she was a teacher, Anthony argued that girls should be educated as well as boys, because there is no inherent difference in their brains. Over 100 years later, science is backing her up.
5. Girl, you better work.
What blew me away the most when I was taking this little glimpse into Anthony’s life was her constant WORK. She seems to have been indefatigable in her pursuit of equality. She reminded me that if there is something you want, pursue it relentlessly. She never saw the fruits of her labor, but she didn’t give up. She stayed the course. And I am so grateful that she did.
Sarah Breedlove was the first free-born child of her parents, Minerva and Owen Breedlove. She was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Though her parents encouraged their children to get an education, the KKK burned down many schools for African American kids in Louisiana.
Sarah’s parents were sharecroppers, and she worked the cotton fields for 12 hours a day before coming home to dig potatoes for the next night’s dinner, feed the chickens, and sweep the yard. On Saturdays, she and her mother and sister (Louvenia) washed clothes for themselves and white people. They got 1$ a week for washing.
Sarah’s mother and father succumbed to disease and she and her siblings were orphaned by 1875; Sarah was 7. One of their brothers, Alex, went to Vicksburg to look for work, and the girls did laundry day and night in order to survive. When crops failed, the girls went to Vicksburg as well. Louvenia married a cruel and dangerous man, and Sarah lived with them until she could stand it no longer and got married herself. She was just 14.
After her husband died, Sarah moved to St Louis where she had heard that laundresses could make good money and where there was a large black community. Her brothers were there working in a barber shop, and Sarah learned about hair care from them. She worked hard and was determined to save enough to send her daughter, Leila, to school. Sarah also collected money for St Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, where African Americans could go to learn to read and write, though it was illegal for them to go to school. By 1902, Sarah had saved enough to send her daughter Leila to Knoxville College.
Sarah spent time in women’s kitchens as they tried to straighten and restore their hair. Her own hair was weak and she was going bald. All of the so-called cures only made it worse.
At the 1904 World’s fair in St Louis, she heard Booker T Washington’s wife, Margaret Washington, speak. Sarah was struck by Margaret’s poise, her confidence, and her hair. Sarah went to bed praying that God would stop her hair from falling out. That night Sarah had a dream of Africa– the earth, soil, and vegetation. She knew she had her answer. She would seek out oils and herbs that were native to Africa and try them on her hair.
In 1905, Sarah learned that one of her brothers had died. She moved to Denver to be with his wife and children. In an attic room, she set up her laboratory and got to work developing a formula for her hair. During the day, she worked as a cook for Mr. E.L. Scholtz, who owned the largest pharmacy in Denver. When she thought she finally had her formula just right, she tried it on herself. And it worked! Her hair began growing back in faster than it had ever fallen out.
She began going door to door with her three new products: Vegetable Shampoo, Wonderful Hair Grower, and Glossine. She would wash women’s hair with the shampoo, apply the hair grower to nourish the scalp, then apply the Glossine with a specially designed metal comb that had been heated on a stove. She was careful to avoid using words like “good hair” (which usually referred to white hair) and “bad hair” (which usually referred to black hair) because she found them, and the idea behind them, insulting. Most hair care companies were owned by white men, who advertised to African Americans by telling them how unattractive they were and glorifying long straight hair. Black ministers, on the other hand, preached against women straightening their hair instead of remaining how God had created them. Sarah believed that what a woman did with her hair should be her own business, not a man’s.
She used her own before and after pictures in her advertisements, not images of light skinned women with long light colored hair. She conveyed confidence and self-worth in her advertisements, something that was often lacking for women– and especially women of color– at the time.
In 1905, Sarah married Charles Walker, and changed her name, and the name of her company, to Madame CJ Walker. She moved to Pittsburgh, where she and Leila (who had finished school by then), trained salespeople, or agents, to go into women’s kitchens and show them how to use Walker’s products. Every customer was a potential agent, and Madame Walker and Leila talked to them not only about health and beauty, but also about self-sufficiency. They told women they could earn money in a respected profession as a hairdresser or saleswoman, while still being good wives and mothers. Agents could expect to make $5.00 a week, which was a pretty penny in a time when black women typically only made about half that. Black men made about $5.00 a week, while white men could expect to make around $17.00 per week.
In just two years, Madame Walker had nearly one hundred representatives and was making $400.00 a week. She opened the Leila College of Hair Culturists. Women flocked to the college to learn a new profession that would give them pride and independence. Madame Walker left Leila in charge of the business in Pittsburgh, and moved to Indianapolis to spread her products. By 1911, the company was making more than $3,000 a week (about $70,000 in today’s money). For a business run by a black woman, this was almost inconceivable.
In Indianapolis, Madame Walker was outraged when she was asked to pay more for a movie ticket than a white person had to pay. Then and there she began design plans for the Walker building, which would cover an entire city block and include office and factory space, as well as a movie theater for the city’s African American population. The more Madame Walker made, the more she gave, pouring money and energy into her community. In 1913, she made the largest donation of any African American to the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA. She rewarded her agents for making contributions to their community as well.
She divorced Mr Walker in 1913. That same year she attended the National Negro
Business League convention in Chicago. She was the richest black woman in America, yet she could not get the attention of the speaker, Booker T Washington. Finally, she stood up and demanded his attention. “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face,” she said. She told her story. She spoke of cotton fields and the Ku Klux Klan burning schools. She spoke of washtubs and starting her own business. Then she said something no man there had said, “My object in life is not simply to make money for myself, but to use part of what I make to help others.”
And help others she did. Along with giving thousands of women like her the training and opportunities they needed to create a better life for themselves, she was a voice for her people. She once demanded a meeting with the President to address violence against African Americans. When she heard Woodrow Wilson was in a meeting about a farm feed bill and could not be bothered, she wasted no time expressing her anger: “You are talking to us of animal feed when colored people are being murdered in the streets!” In 1919 Madam Walker became seriously ill while on a trip to St Louis. She was rushed home, where she ordered her accountants to make a donation of $5,000 to the anti-lynching fund of the NAACP. It was the largest donation the organization had ever received.
Before she died she said, “I want to live to help my race.”
Madam CJ Walker not only helped her race, she has helped countless women by proving that when life doesn’t provide you with opportunities, you have to make them yourself.
She followed her own path. And that is beautiful.
Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker by Kathryn Lasky